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Megan Rapinoe missing the final kick of her soccer career. Dylan Bowman relinquishing the Wonderland FKT to another trail runner one week after he set it. Courtney Dauwalter’s bronchial infection and wildfire smoke thwarting her Colorado Trail FKT attempt.
We don’t have to have experience on the world stage to imagine the pain of these moments. Challenging experiences like failure, regret, and disappointment–and the feelings that come with them–are part of the human experience. For runners who are vulnerable enough to chase big goals and push their limits, low points are not anomalies, they’re inevitabilities.
Sometimes our low points are a result of poor choices and sometimes they’re just bad luck, but it’s unrealistic to pretend like they’re never going to happen. A runner’s strength, then, comes not from an ability to avoid low periods, but from an ability to navigate them. For runners looking to prepare themselves mentally for the mental and emotional challenges of training and racing, it’s time to get serious about self-compassion.
What is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion is showing compassion to yourself. It is seeing yourself through painful experiences in the same way that you would a friend. You can’t fix the problem or remove the problem for your friend, but you still show up with kindness, empathy and validation to help make things easier. With self-compassion, you provide this same care to yourself.
Kirsten Neff, a psychologist based at the University of Texas at Austin, is a leading expert on self-compassion and has been studying its effectiveness for two decades. Her widely accepted model of self-compassion combines mindfulness—awareness and acceptance of the present moment, both good and bad, and not overidentifying with a thought or feeling–with self kindness–being kind to yourself during difficult experiences or failures and common humanity–recognizing that difficult emotions and experiences are part of being human, and we are not alone in our discomfort. A self-compassionate runner accepts the reality of the situation, comforts themselves through the pain of that reality, and connects outward to humanity/other athletes.
Self-Compassion Instead of Self-Esteem
Neff developed her model of self-compassion as an alternative to self-esteem. Self-esteem is only accessible when we feel good about ourselves—when we have an achievement, experience success, or when we compare ourselves favorably to others.This need to perform in order to feel good about oneself can create pressure, anxiety and stress and when one doesn’t perform well, self-esteem drops. As Neff states in her book Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, “Once we start basing our self-esteem purely on our performance, our greatest joys in life can start to seem like so much hard work, our pleasure morphing into pain.”
In contrast, self-compassion invites us to show ourselves kindness in moments of success and failure. Where we have to earn the positive experience of self-esteem, self-compassion requires nothing of us. In a 2005 study with undergraduate students, Neff and her colleagues demonstrated that self-compassion is linked to both valuing mastery goals over performance goals and to a reduced fear of failure. When it’s safe to fail, we have the courage to aim for big things and feel less tied to their outcomes.
Self-Compassion Instead of Self-Criticism
When we aim for big things, there’s a chance that we will fail or face obstacles along the way to achieving our goal. In those painful moments, it’s more helpful to have a friend in your ear than a critic.
While it’s common for an athlete to respond to themselves critically, it’s ineffective. In the short term, self-criticism activates the stress response, reduces the ability to problem solve, and diminishes performance. In the long term, it’s linked to stress, burnout and poor mental health. Self-compassion, conversely, is linked to decrease in cortisol and production of oxytocin and endorphins.
In addition to this soothing physiological benefit, self-compassion helps us cope productively. A 2020 meta-analysis of 130 studies on self-compassion and coping found that self-compassion is highly correlated to adaptive coping skills and negatively correlated to maladaptive coping strategies. When things get stressful, a self-compassionate person can move forward purposefully and is less likely to catastrophize or ruminate.
With self-criticism, we see an outcome as fixed and relate it to the core of who we are. We DNF and think “I’m just not cut out for this distance.” With self-compassion, we look for lessons and insight to bring to our next attempt. “I didn’t have this distance in me today. Next time I will train more for the heat so I am better prepared.”
Self-Compassion On Race Day
Self-compassion is linked to decreased performance anxiety, so self-compassionate runners get to the starting line with less stress and anxiety. But it helps with mid-race obstacles, too. Let’s look at how a runner can use self-compassion during the race to overcome unhelpful thoughts and feelings.
Imagine a runner at mile 75 of a 100-mile race. They are noticing fatigue and soreness in their legs and after noticing self-critical and fear based thoughts, decide to utilize self-compassion.
First, they pause and use mindfulness to notice the discomfort in the legs without judgment, aware that they hurt, but noticing there is no acute pain. Next, they offer themselves self-kindness and speak to themselves like they would a friend, saying “Of course your legs hurt, you’ve run 75 miles! This pain is part of the process. It will end.” With common humanity They may look at their fellow competitors and think “They are hurting, too. I am not alone. We are in this together.” Knowing there is no acute pain, they accept this discomfort as part of the experience and push forward, making it to the finish.
Self-compassion gets easier the more you practice it. Check out Kristen Neff’s website to get started.
The first step is gaining awareness. Notice when you have a critical voice. When you do, gently respond to yourself with compassion. What would you say to a friend having those thoughts and experiences? Say those things to yourself.
Treating yourself with kindness is a skill. Practice it until it becomes routine.